Before that I worked for the University of St Andrews. In both institutions I have found myself building new teams within existing contexts. Two very different situations at very different organisations. Interesting to compare those experiences. Gareth has covered a lot of this story, so I won’t dwell too much.
It was my first proper grown up job. I grew a lot very quickly. St Andrews was a fantastic learning environment for me. Gareth and Steve - great mentors. I learned about how to choose the perfect URL. Web management, best practice, agile.
I learned to be really careful about how to position social media icons.
I learned a lot about internal politics. In five years at St Andrews I worked for four different service units and had more bosses than I care to remember. Navigating choppy political waters is absolutely key to getting anything done.
I also learned about running a team. Digital communications team. I dug a tunnel to Admissions. I was seconded to Admissions to redesign pages for student recruitment. Enabled us to break the cycle of the damaging position the web team were in at the time. Lots of chat about how best to structure digital in an organisation. Various ideas discussed at previous IWMW events and elsewhere. Interesting to try out something different and experience it for myself. Working for Admissions: Very different environment to being in a central team. IT or Communications culture can bring ‘ivory tower’ mentality.
Most valuable aspect: The conversation in the corridor. Absolutely vital for: Building trust with the Admissions team. I was no longer an outsider to be suspicious of. I was part of their team. So my advice was taken much more seriously. We saw that we all had the same agenda, and worked together to pursue it. Generating ideas. Learning about users. Jared Spool talks about time with users being the most valuable thing to do if you want a good user experience. Don’t often get this chance when working in a traditional central IT team. In Admissions we did do a fair amount of usability testing, focus groups, etc. But I still didn’t spend a significant amount of time overall with our users. But I did spend a lot of time with a lot of people who do go out and speak to prospective students very frequently. Valuable insight into differences between different types of audience as well. Colleagues in Admissions were very knowledgable about their users, even if they didn’t always know how to make a good website from that knowledge. Important lesson. It’s easy if you are in a central team to think you are the centre of the universe and the fount of all knowledge. But you don’t know everything! Part of our role as digital managers may be to educate our colleagues. But it’s also to learn from others. It is a two-way relationship. Our job is to coordinate and join it all up. To manage it, not dictate it. But working this way was not sustainable. For one, I was only focusing on Admissions. What about the rest of the university?
For another thing, the expectation on my shoulders was now huge. I was expected to: Determine new IA. Audit and rewrite all content (hundreds of pages). Strengthen content management processes. Come up with a visual design. Code it up and programme the CMS. Meanwhile I had my own aim: To change culture and embed a more user-centred approach. All in a matter of a months. Individually those tasks were all within my abilities, but I was spread too thinly. Eventually - after a few false starts - I managed to persuade management to hire some more people to help me out.
Web designer with focus on visual impact. Web team had lots of technical expertise. But no one had an exclusive focus on UI and visual design. Opportunity to fill that gap. Admissions and Comms managers’ were requesting better visual impact. They wanted us to “make it pop”. We found Lewis Wake, who has a brilliant visual eye.
Content editor to lead on issues surrounding content. We banged on a lot about how content should come first and how it is the most important aspect of any web project. That is true. Yet we had never pushed for dedicated content resource! This was the ideal opportunity to change that. We found Carley Hollis, who hit the ground running and challenged everyone straight away.
Those aspects helped distinguish the new team from the existing web team. We had formed the digital communications team. By hiring two great people, things really ramped up. A few months later the website was launched. This was the product of our efforts - Study at St Andrews. And then we were promptly moved to Corporate Communications. Our remit changed once again. Now our focus was on the whole external facing website. Still exciting work.
The elephant in the room. I wanted to retain the new ways of working we had developed, and continue to harness the huge enthusiasm of my new team members. But I was anxious to carefully manage relationship with the web team. I knew we would have to rely heavily on them to help produce our work.
The web team were and are my friends and mentors. Here we are last year looking at the solar eclipse - some of us more safely than others. I also knew that there was a good chance that the new team would be merged back into the web team. Having two separate teams was not sustainable. So keeping good relations was key. We merged again, but it was a long, difficult and frustrating process. The rewards came, as Gareth explained.
But it was time for me to move on - for a variety of reasons. That teaspoon I used to dig to Admissions came in very handy, as I used it to dig a bigger tunnel.
I ended up in Edinburgh at SRUC - Scotland’s Rural College. Similarly sized to St Andrews in terms of student and staff numbers, but very different in nature. When I started, people warned me about the politics. In fact, in my experience it has not been remotely as political at St Andrews - or at least, it is different. But it does have its challenges.
SRUC formed in 2012. Merger between four colleges: Barony College Elmwood College Oatridge College Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) Itself an amalgamation of three colleges that merged in the 1990s.
Three separate divisions covering different aspects of the business: Education We provide education at all levels from college access courses right up to PhD. Vocational skills training. Research These aspects are delivered quite separately. No strong relationship between the two, unlike many universities. Although this will change with a plan to merge Education and Research to create an Academic division. SAC Consulting Commercial arm. Services for farmers and other rural businesses. Lots of work carried out on behalf of government. Major part of the business.
Six education campuses, spread all across Scotland.
Additional research facilities.
Several Consulting offices. One of them is in Benbecula, an island with a population of around 1,000. We genuinely cover all of Scotland. In fact, more than that - because we also have an office in Kendal. This makes it pretty difficult to have that conversation in the corridor. ...and I thought content management was a challenge at St Andrews with people dispersed throughout the town.
Political challenges. Different in nature to St Andrews, but still there. Challenging environment for FE in Scotland. FE institutions encouraged to merge by Scottish government. Sensitivities as a result. Felt across the whole FE sector in Scotland. Financial pressures.
So that sets the scene in terms of what SRUC is. I had a new job there! I was the new web manager. Heading up a small team of two.
Both posts were vacant before I started. There had been a web manager before, but she had left several weeks before I began. No real handover. There is a web designer. Works for the IS department. Works on a different floor. Has a different boss. Has a different agenda. Attention focused as much on internal web apps as the external facing website I am responsible for. Works part-time. Didn’t necessarily know the answers to all my questions about aspects like content management and so on.
Once again a one man band. But now it was as if I was learning the instruments on the job as well. I could take what I could glean from the web designer and my colleagues in Communications. But apart from that, I had to work out a lot of stuff for myself. How to get stuff done at SRUC. How the CMS worked. Why had previous decisions been made? Some things that didn’t make sense at first glance, but I thought there must have been a reason why. What was the content management process, if there was one? One person told me, “your predecessor just let me do what I want!”
I mentioned there was one other vacant post. Digital communications officer. Post had been vacant for even longer than the web manager post. But SRUC wanted to hire the web manager first. Digital communications officer to focus on social media as well as assisting on the web. Different approach to St Andrews. At St Andrews I felt like I was learning from my supposedly junior colleagues all the time. Important because of the fast-moving nature of digital. I’m 30, which means I’m well over the hill in terms of digital. We found a great person with strong expertise on rural matters. Will Millership. No particular digital background. Strong background as a comms generalist. Useful in a small comms operation. He also picks up digital concepts very quickly, which is brilliant. Rural expertise is vital because I have no particular specialist knowledge on rural affairs. Handy for reaching rural audiences on social media, particularly for reaching rural businesses, communicating research, and attracting prospective students. So it works really well.
There is another person. Digital marketing officer. Based in Education. Designed to give someone the space to think specifically about digital. I was involved in approving the post and hiring the individual. Also part-time. Fixed term. Another department. Another campus. Rich Gordon. In practice he mainly focuses on social media, and works closely with Will.
We have a team! A fresh start, right? Nope… Digital roadmap. This was put together by an external agency with the assistance of the previous web manager. I have protected the identity of the agency in case I am accidentally rude about them. November 2014 - seven months before I started. Some of the work outlined had already been carried out. But most was still to be done. It had lain dormant for a while due to the departure of the previous digital team.
My job was to validate it. Speak to those stakeholders again. Were these projects still relevant? How could they be pushed forward? Look at timescales, which had all slipped. First issue: Course finder.
Case study of the challenges we had more generally kick-starting the work. Roadmap talked about a small UI tweak, and it had already been done. Talking to Education division, more fundamental issues quickly emerged. Anecdotal evidence that users were struggling to find the Apply Now link. Looking at it, I can’t say I was surprised. But the fact that the Education department felt that Course finder didn’t meet their original brief was news to central colleagues in Comms and IS.
I’d also put my foot in it before I even began working at SRUC. At my job interview I was asked to come up with ways to improve the website. I featured course finder, and apparently my proposal to simplify it was one of the reasons I was offered the job.
So we set about redesigning it. Lots of extra work redoing this all. But my lack of knowledge on the history of the project had some good points. I wasn’t precious about radically changing it.
Some constraints. Very slow moving projects. All 12 items on the Digital Roadmap are moving forward. All running concurrently, but in fits and starts. It’s a snail race. Sometimes tangible progress is hard to come by. Only two of 12 projects complete so far. No-one’s fault. A function of where SRUC is as an organisation just now.
An example: Alumni and friends section. Original deadline: January 2015. It was given to me as my top priority when I began in June 2015. Subject to delays for a wide variety of reasons beyond my control. Finally launched in April 2016.
Less ability to directly influence the design than I am used to. Much smaller team. Half FTE web designer, who works on other projects as well. We have little access to the website design anyway. Design is effectively outsourced to our CMS vendor. Unable to implement a change to one line of CSS that I could easily do myself. It would cost money to make a tiny tweak that would take me a few minutes. So I can’t change the font to Comic Sans on a whim.
Many success stories. Not just pointing at monitors, although we are great at that. Despite the difficulties of starting from scratch, there have been a lot of benefits to the fresh start. Fresh pairs of eyes to multiple projects. New training programmes. Implementing improved content management processes.
More proactive management of social media.
Next steps forward: Where does this leave things like UX or digital transformation? Position of the organisation means it thinks it has bigger priorities. It might be right! Many people are oddly uninterested in the website. Digital is still not seen by everyone as the best way to reach people in rural areas with poor internet speeds. Platforms and channels are ‘owned’ by different individuals. Course applications system primarily looked after by someone in IS. Although I have suggestions to improve it, we are limited in our scope to do so. Intranet - nothing to do with me. VLE - nothing to do with me. In practice I leave Will to do social media. I only look after the comms element of the external facing website. I would like to create a cow path. Long run. Help organisation achieve cohesive experience across all these applications. Vital to a good user experience and student satisfaction.
Building a digital team (almost) from scratch
Building a digital team
(almost) from scratch
Web manager, SRUC – Scotland’s Rural College
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By Remi Mathis - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
University of St Andrews
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Afterwards Tom and Eric weren’t exactly sure at which point during their discussion the
elephant had entered the room by David Blackwell, on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/7nhMYE
Relationship with the web team
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